Best Seller by O. Henry — Explanation
Para 1 .. One day last summer, I (the narrator) went to Pittsburgh on business.
Para 2 .. The chair-car I was traveling on was almost packed to its capacity with rather well-to-do passengers. The ladies inside the car wore brown-silk dresses with square yokes with lace insertions and dotted veils. They didn’t like the idea of the windows slid up as they wanted the full unrestricted view of the outside. The men were an assorted lot of varying professions, heading towards different destinations. I reclined on the chair no. 7 and nonchalantly looked over towards chair no. 9. I could see small, black and bald-spotted head.
Para 3 .. Suddenly I saw that the man who sat in chair no.9 flung a book towards the window. The book was the best-seller – The Rose Lady and the Trevelyan. When the man turned towards the window, I could get a better view of him. I realized I had run into an old acquaintance of mine – John A. Pescud of Pittsburgh. He worked as a traveling salesman for a plate-glass company there. I was seeing him after nearly two years.
Para 4 .. We soon sat face to face enjoying the encounter. What followed was a good chat over many things – rain, prosperity, health, residence and destination we both were heading to. Happily for me, our conversation did not drift towards politics.
Para 5 .. Pescud was a robust man, small in height, with a broad grin. While talking, he fixed his gaze right on the face of the man he was speaking with.
Para 6 .. Pescud worked for Cambria Steel Works. He was proud of it and its product – the plate-glasses. He was a local man, quite decent and law-abiding.
Para 7 .. I had never talked to Pescud earlier on such matters as romance, literature and ethics. Our interaction had remained centered around local topics.
Para 8 .. On this meeting aboard the train, I could get to talk to Pescud in more detail. He was upbeat about his business. He told me how the inflow of orders had improved after the party convention. Pescud was to get down at Coketown.
Para 9 .. Pescud was quite blunt when it came to his views on the book he was holding — The Rose Lady and the Trevelyan. Holding the book in his hand in a way that showed his disapproval of the book, he wondered if I had read any such book rated as bestsellers. He was alluding to the absurdity of the story that had an affluent well-dressed American who fell in love with a European princess traveling with an assumed name.
Para 10.. I added my comments to the stereotypical plot of the story – The American follows the princess to her father’s kingdom. The American finally meets the lady of his dreams in her home and engages in a long conversation with her apparently to win her heart. The lady draws the man’s attention towards the gulf that existed in their social backgrounds. Unnerved by this, the American makes a labourious attempt to assure the lady that America had no dearth of men of affluence and status.
Para 11 .. The masculine American “hero” kicks aside anyone coming in his way to the princess. Even the king’s guards suffer the ignonimity. Like this, we mocked the author of the books who weave such absurd stories.
Para 12 .. Pescud concurred to the idea and rubbished the book as nothing better than pulp fiction.
Para 13 .. Then, Pescud espouses his views about the compatibility between men and women proposing to tie the nuptial knot. In his view, men and women normally seek out their life partners from similar social backgrounds.
Para 14 .. Perhaps, to illustrate the point further, Pescud held the book in his hand and tried to open the page which had the most absurd description.
Para 15 .. Pescud read out the line, ‘Trevelyan is sitting with Princess Alwyna at the backend of the tulip-garden. He reads further …
Para 16 .. ‘Say not so, earth’s dearest and sweetest of earth’s fairest flowers. Would I aspire? You are a star set high above me in a royal heaven; I am only myself. Yet, I am a man, and I have a heart to do and dare. I have no title save that of an uncrowned sovereign; but I have an arm and a sword that yet might free Schutzenfestenstein from the plots of traitors.
Para 17 .. Pescud was quite derisive in his criticism of the plot. He said, ‘Just think of a Chicago man flaunting a sword to accomplish some imaginary saviour’s act.’
Para 18 .. I told Pescud that there was enough substance in his criticism of the story and the book. He felt that fiction-writers should not stray too much away from reality and invite ridicule from rational readers. They should not mix Turkish pashas with Vermont farmers or English dukes with Longisland clamdiggers or Cincinnati agents with the Rajas of India.
Para 19 .. Pescud added ‘plain businessmen must not be tagged with very well-placed, affluent social class.” Pescud was quite critical of people who buy the best-sellers in such good numbers. He was emphatic that books that have highly imaginary plots are low quality fiction which need to be shunned by people with even the minimum intelligence.
Para 20- .. Before Pescud’s vociferous condemnation of popular fiction that have highly-contrived plots, I looked powerless. I meekly submitted that I had not read such books for quite sometime.
Trying to steer away from the discussion which was stretching my patience by then, I broached another subject. I asked him about the way his business was going.
Para 21 .. The mention of his business buoyed up Pescud’s mood instantly. He said how he had two salary hikes already, and how he was expecting some good commission for his sales. He was also going to get some shares of the company. He had managed to buy a house – a sure sign that his fortunes were looking up.
Para 22 .. I asked him if he had met any girl yet with whom he could settle down.
Para 23 .. Pescud lighted up, as if he had a lot many things to say.
Para 24 .. It was quite a pleasant revelation for me. I joked about it saying my friend had delved into the world of romance from the world of plate-glass.
Para 25 .. Pescud seemed to be quite joyfully modest. He was more than willing to tell me all about his foray in to the domain of romance.
Para 26 .. Pescud said it all happened when he was traveling by train to Cincinnati eighteen months ago. He saw a girl who appeared to him to be so enchanting at first sight.
Para 27 .. The girl was reading a book. Pescud looked on at her, feasting his eyes on her beauty.
Para 28 .. The girl changed train at Cincinnati and headed towards Louisville by a sleeper class train. After reaching Louisville, she went on through Shelbyville, Frankford, and Lexigton. Along there, Pescud had difficulty in catching up with her. The trains all appeared to be running late, traveling languidly. The trains stopped at junctions instead of towns before drawing up.
Para 29 .. Pescud tried his utmost to stay out of the girl’s sight, but stalked her nonetheless. Finally, she got off at a nondescript place in Virginia – a place that had about fifty houses.
Para 30 .. In the background, there were mules, red mud, and speckled hounds.
Para 31 .. She was received by a tall old man with vanity. The escort took the girl’s sling bag from her. Then they walked along a steep uphill track. Pescud maintained a good distance from the duo posing as if he was doing something very innocuous like searching for the lost ring of his sister.
Para 32 .. On reaching the top of the hill, they entered a gate. What Pescud saw there left him utterly bewildered. A huge mansion with nearly thousand feet high pillars stood there. There was a surfeit of beautiful roses of many types. There were the beautiful lilacs too. The mansion along with its sprawling surroundings looked as imposing as the Capitol in Washington.
Para 33 .. Deciding to step back for a while, Pescud was relieved to find that the girl was fairly well off. He wondered who could be the owner of such a majestic building. Agog with curiosity, he decided to go back to the village to make inquiries about the building and its inmates.
Para 34 .. Pescud found a hotel in the village. Its signboard read ‘Bay View House’. The name appeared a little funny because there was no ‘bay’ any where near. There was a horse-grazing field though, stretching in front of the hotel. Pescud tried to put on the airs of a business person of some importance by giving his business card and declaring in somewhat pompous manner that he sold plate-glasses.
Para 35 .. With a little effort, Pescud got the inn-keeper talking.
Para 36 .. When Pescud made inquiries about the mansion and its occupants, the inn-keeper was somewhat amused to find that his guest knew little about the occupants of the land-mark house of the area. He told Pescud that Col. Allyn lived there. The Colonel was the most prominent man in the area. Being the oldest inhabitant of the village, he had gathered a lot of clout. The inn-keeper happened to know the daughter well, too. He told Pescud that she had been to Illinois to see her aunt. It was possibly during her return train journey that Pescud had seen her.
Para 37 .. Pescud checked into the hotel. On the third day, he could get to see the lady of his dreams. She was taking a stroll in the front yard right to the paling fence. Pescud was overjoyed. As a mark of courtesy, he raised his hat. This was the only way he could communicate to a lady – a total stranger.
Para 38 .. Pescud asked, “Excuse me, can you tell me where Mr. Hinkle lives?”
Para 39 .. She looked almost with total indifference towards Pescud, but her glance said she was a bit amused too.
Para 40 .. She replied that to her knowledge there was no one by the name Mr. Hinkle in Birchton.
Para 41 .. For Pescud, this answer seemed to open a door for continuing the chat. He asserted that he was quite serious and would appreciate a more sincere answer. He said, “No kidding, I am not looking for smoke, even if I do come from Pittsburgh.”
Para 42 .. She replied, ‘You are quite distant from your home.’ Pescud was elated.
Para 43 .. He said, “I could have gone a thousand miles farther.” It was a cryptic remark, almost inviting her to ask the next question.
Para 44 .. In course of following her, he had dozed off on a bench at Shelbyville station. Fortunately for him, the sound of the incoming train made him sit up. He managed to get into the train which she too took. She had clearly noticed that he was stalking her. She found out that he had managed to get into her train.
Para 45 .. For Pescud, it was a plot that he had failed to hide from the girl’s eyes. Nevertheless, he ventured to disclose his intentions, very politely and honestly. He told about his profession, his income, and of course, the way he has been enamoured of her.
Para 46 .. She smiled and blushed at Pescud’s statement, but she never took his eyes of him –perhaps more as a trait than anything else.
Para 47 .. She told that it was the first time someone had spoken to her like that. She asked him about his first name again.
Para 48 .. ‘John A.’, said Pescud.
Para 49 .. She had another surprise to spring on Pescud. She knew that Pescud had almost missed his train at the Powhatan Junction. Saying this, she had a hearty laugh, much to the amusement and surprise of Pescud.
Para 50 .. Quite taken aback by the girl’s observation, Pescud asked her how she knew so much about his missing the train at the Powhatan Junction.
Para 51 .. She replied, “Men are very clumsy.” She virtually swept Pescud off his feet by disclosing that she knew he was following her. She had expected him to come forward to speak to her, but she was glad he didn’t.
Para 52 .. Both of them became quiet for a while. After that, she pointed her finger towards the large house she lived in.
Para 53 .. She said her family – the Allyns – had lived in Elmcroft for nearly a century. There was a degree of concealed pride in her voice. She said that her parental mansion had 50 rooms, a reception room and a large balcony. The ceilings of the ball room and the reception room were 28 feet high. She said her ancestors were the ‘belted earls’. (a ceremonial title given to eminent people before the 17th century)
Para 54 .. She proceeded to describe the enormous hold her father had over Elmcroft. Even a drummer could not come in without his permission. Then, more as humour than as threat, she said how she could get locked in her room for talking to a stranger.
Para 55 .. The first encounter had gone well for Pescud by any account. He ventured to ask her if he could drop in again to see her.
Para 56 .. She, however, cut short his surging optimism rather abruptly. Reluctant to talk to him any further as both of them had not been introduced till then, she said it was time to call it a day. She appeared to have forgotten his name in the meantime.
Para 57 .. He asked her to say his name.
Para 58 .. With a little irritation, she uttered ‘Pescud’.
Para 59 .. Not a bit nonplussed, he coaxed her to say his full name.
Para 60 .. She said, ‘John’.
Para 61 .. He asked, ‘John-what’.
Para 62 .. “‘John A.,’ said she, with her head held high. ‘Are you through, now?”.
Para 63 .. He declared he was coming to see her father, the ‘belted earl’ the next day.
Para 64 .. With some humour, she said that she was sure her father would set his fox-hounds on him.
Para 65 .. Pescud had a repartee ready. He said the dogs would have a lot of chasing to do as he was a hunter too, with quick feet.
Para 66 .. The girl wanted to end the dialogue fast. Suggesting that it was time for her to go back in, she wished him happy return journey. She was not sure whether Pescud was heading back to Minneapolis or to Pittsburgh.
Para 67 .. Minneapolis was not where he was heading, replied Pescud. He said good night to her, but before finally breaking off for the day, he asked what her name was.
Para 68 and 69 .. She hesitated for a moment. She playfully pulled a leaf from a plant, and told him that Jessie was her name.
Para 70 .. He said ‘Good-night’ to her, calling her by her name Miss Allyn.
Para 71 .. Next morning sharp at 11am, Pescud was there at the main door of World Fair main building. He rang the bell. After nearly 45 miniutes an old man appeared and asked him what he wanted. Pescud handed over his business card and told the old man that he wanted to see the colonel (Miss. Allyn’s father). The old man ushered Pescud in.
Para 72 .. Pescud went in looking intently at the interior. It gave the impression of being a house in decay. Old, aristocratic furniture lay there on the floor, all virtually crying for attention. Their number was also not much when compared to the size of the house. Framed photographs of ancestors adorned the walls reminding the visitor of the faded glory of the past and the waning fortunes of today.
Colonel Allyn made his appearance after a while. His gait was royal, and his exterior exuded vanity and dignity. His presence seemed to bring back to life the regalia and splendour of the days gone by. The Colonel’s frayed clothes did not dampen either his spirit or the aura of greatness he liked to wear around him for good.
The colonel’s presence made Pescud look rather small about himself. He grew nervous, very uncomfortable at the imposing presence of the old colonel. But, Pescud regained his composure soon. He was asked to be seated. Then, drawing himself up, he proceeded to apprise the colonel why he had come, how he had been enchanted by Miss Allyn’s charm, and how he had followed her from Cincinnati. He also told Col. Allyn everything about his salary, job, prospects and his moral moorings.
Pescud was indeed nervous wondering how the old man would react, but he continued with his bio-data presentation.
Para 73 .. To much relief of Pescud, the colonel gave a hearty laugh. He felt such occasions when the old man laughed must have been very few and far between indeed.
Para 74 .. Pescud’s encounter with the colonel lasted for two hours. After hearing out the prospective suitor of his daughter, the old man opened up, shooting questions at the visitor. Pescud answered all of them quite diligently.
He beseeched Colonel Allyn to give him a chance to try and win Miss Allyn’s heart. If he failed, he would retreat gracefully, the young visitor promised.
Para 75 .. The old man got into a reflective mood trying to take a journey down his memo0ry lane. He said, “There was a Sir Courtney Pescud in the time of Charles 1.” He was trying to find out if this Pescud was in any way related to the deceased Pescud.
Para 76 .. Pescud humbly denied any link with the family the colonel was referring to. He told the inquisitive old man that they were rooted to Pittsburgh where one of his uncles lived. He was into real estate. Another uncle on whom fortune had not smiled, lived in Kansas. He proceeds to narrate an anecdote about a captain of a whaling ship who made a sailor say his prayers.
Para 77 ..The colonel appeared to be getting into a jovial mood. He said he did not know such anecdote.
Para 78 .. Pescud narrated the anecdote. The colonel was all ears.
Para 79 .. The old man’s jovial interior was fast coming to the fore. He said he would narrate a fox-hunting story in which he himself had been an actor.
Para 80 .. Pescud got to meet Miss Jessie Allyn two evenings later. The three sat together in the porch.
He stole a moment with Jessie when the old man had paused to recollect another story from his past.
Para 81 .. Pescud enjoyed every moment of the evening.
Para 82 .. Jessie appeared to be in a light joyful mood too. With a cryptic smile on her face, she told Pescud that her old father was going to narrate another story of his – the one about the old African and the watermelons. There was a set pattern to it. Her father narrated his anecdotes in predetermined sequence. The Yankees first, the Game rooster second, and then came the African and the Watermelons. The one on Pulaski City could follow next.
Para 83 .. It was a tryst that lifted Pescud’s spirits greatly. While going down the steps, he nearly tripped. So excited he had become!
Para 84 .. Jessie seemed to know that the occasion had left Pescud swimming in a pool of joy.
Para 85 .. Jessie, too, was affected with the intoxicating moments of romance. She went back to the room, jumping the window with youthful energy.
Para 86 ..THE SCENE CHANGEs. The porter shouted ‘Coketown’.
Para 87 .. Pescud gathered his baggage and his hat with a great satisfaction of accomplishment.
Para 88 .. Pescud disclosed that he married Miss Allyn a year ago, built a house in East End and settled there along with his father inlaw, the colonel.
Para 89 .. I glanced at the surroundings of the sleepy Coketown. It looked so primitive and un-romantic with its huts all over the place and the mounds of slag and clinker. It was the ugly face of the industries that operated nearby.
Para 90 .. I asked Pescud why he was getting down at Coketown where there did not seem to be much scope for selling plate-glass.
Para 91 .. Pescud narrated how on one occasion, he had taken his wife Jessie to Philadelphia for an outing. While on their way back, in Coketown Jessie happend to see some petunias planted in a pot. She remembered that there were petunias in her parental home in Virginia. Pescud said he was getting off the train there to see if he could get some petunias for his lovely wife Jessie. It seemed the romance had not waned a bit long after the marriage.
Pescud got off the train, giving me the business card and inviting me to his house.
Para 92 .. It began to rain as the train moved on. A lady in the compartment wanted the windows raised to fend off the rain drops. The porter came, as usual, with his wand and lighted up the compartment.
Para 93 .. I (the narrator) glanced downwards to find the discarded book – The Rose and the Trevelyan – still on the floor. I carefully pushed it a little further so that the raindrops do not make it wet.
Para 94 .. In a sad reflective mood, I said, “Good luck to you Trevelyan, may you find the petunias for your princess.”